The job of epidemiologists is to trace the signature of a disease outbreak. Find its origins. Find the connections.
Monday at the Eastern Carver County School Board meeting, Kathryn Como-Sabetti, a supervisor for the Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control team, described what is going on locally.
Her graph looked like an overgrown spider web, spreading in every direction.
Como-Sabetti shared currently MDH has found 251 confirmed cases of the B117 variant in the state of Minnesota, with 214 of those coming in the seven-metro area counties.
Of those cases, 12 have resulted in hospitalizations, and two have died.
Overall, Carver County has had a spike in COVID cases in general, totaling 240 between Feb. 27 and March 5, an increase of 71% from 30 days before.
MDH has identified 140 linked cases of the B117 variant, with 32 confirmed cases in school-age athletes, coaches and household contacts in Carver County. Additionally, there are 67 cases currently requested to be sequenced for strand identification.
Como-Sabetti said the first onset/test date range for the B117 variant in Carver County was found in late January/early February at a K-8 school. From there, linkages are associated to dozens of cases among youth sports, siblings and eventually other elementary schools.
Other clusters were found in a sports association, a child care room and multiple high schools. In that child care room, the transmission rate was 100%, a sign, though not confirmed yet, of the B117 variant, which transmits at a much higher rate and attacks younger people.
"Even when people are doing the right precautions, any kind of lapse, this particular variant will take advantage," Como-Sabetti said.
A common theme in many of the B117 variant cases has been youth sports. Eighteen hockey teams, four basketball teams associated with three high schools, three club lacrosse teams, one club soccer team, two recreation centers, and one fitness studio.
Additionally, one private high school, one private K-8 school, three public elementary schools, four public middle schools, and two public high schools have also been identified as having B117 cases.
"What we find is it is very difficult to necessarily tell exactly what place an individual may have picked it up. Because many people whose family plays hockey will have multiple siblings on different teams, and maybe in different settings," Como-Sabetti said.
The current data is roughly about two weeks behind the situation. Como-Sabetti said sequencing the virus, when available, generally takes 3 to 5 days to confirm or deny.
Dan Huff, assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Health Protection Bureau, said people want to blame sports, but he said that is not necessarily the case.
"I want to be clear, this is not because of sports. It's not because of something athletes do that other people don't do. The fact that it's happening in Carver County doesn't relate really to Carver County. What it is, is we have a community of people that share a lot with each other. Our parents who are sports parents are interacting with one another. They care for their kids. They're in social circles with other parents. The kids have social circles. They have sleepovers with their teammates or they go out to team dinners. They have birthday parties together," Huff said.
"This is a whole social community, and the virus got into social community and spread incredible rapidly through these interconnected activities," he added.
Huff said it's a race between vaccine and variant right now. That is why MDH asked for all youth and high school sports teams to pause from activity from March 8-22.
Eastern Carver County Schools' direction was to halt all levels of play outside of varsity, while closing school facilities to rentals. They have also suggested teams of athletes and coaches get regularly tested.
For those teams unable to pause sports, Huff said entire teams should be tested 72 hours before each contest, and then again a week later. He also said to limit social gatherings outside of the household.
More than 1,300 people utilized a pop-up testing site at Chan Rec Center on March 11-13, said ECCS Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams. The site will be open one more time on March 18-20.
"We want to stop it wherever we can, thus the added precautions in Carver County. We need to give ourselves more time to get the vaccine fully rolled out," Huff said, describing the situation as a rapidly developing "wildfire."
ECCS Board Member Tim Klein asked, as the two-week pause concludes this week, what is next for a recommendation.
Huff said it's all about mitigation of spread. It's first identifying who is affected so they can isolate to prevent the virus jumping to more people.
"A concentrated, real robust effort where everyone takes part by testing, pausing, limiting, the disease can only exist in a human host. If it doesn't have another human host to go to, it will die out," Huff said.
Both the MDH and ECCS ask families to limit spring break plans. For those traveling, families should be tested in advance and be tested 5 to 7 days upon return, quarantining in between.
A CITY PERSPECTIVE
Chaska Mayor Mark Windschitl said he and others in the county felt "singled out" by the recommendations. Others could simply go practice somewhere else.
"You're penalizing the cities that follow the recommendations," he said at a March 15 city council meeting, but recognized the need to work with public health officials. "Hopefully it's the last bump in the road as we move forward with more and more vaccinations."
Chaska City Administrator Matt Podhradsky talked of the importance of getting maintenance workers and other staff to be vaccinated. On Tuesday night amid snow, eight plow drivers were out due to COVID-related absences.
In addition, Podhradsky anecdotally knows more families who have gotten COVID in the past week than throughout the entire pandemic.
With luck, he said we're maybe two-and-a-half months from not worrying much about COVID, variants included.
"Let's get through this last push and if we do, we should be in a pretty good position going through the summer," he said.
Reporter Amy Felegy contributed to this article.